We were gathered, the citizens of group 45A, filling the gallery of a courtroom. In front of us there were three people — two lawyers and the defendant.
The prosecuting attorney, who I would soon learn was an Assistant District Attorney, was a tall woman, brown-skinned, with short, tightly-curled hair parted on the left side. Ms Hawkins wore a businesslike skirt and jacket in neutral browns and grays. The skirt stopped short of her knees, which I expect was intentional, but the sleeves of her suit were too short for her long arms. Her hands were also long, with long, expressive fingers. If she plays basketball, I bet she’s pretty good at it. Or piano. She mentioned later (in one of those calculated asides to make her likable to the jury) that she was almost 40 years old. I would not have guessed that.
To her right the defense attorney stood with the defendant. Ms Li also wore a skirt and suit, but was much more willing to embrace color, coming to court in blue with colorful accents. She didn’t have any physical traits that jumped out at me on that first impression; it wasn’t until she spoke that we learned her true superpower.
The defendant. Shit, just a kid. Brown-skinned, short, skinny, close-cropped black hair. Clearly coached by Ms Li to be respectful and friendly. Nice smile, shirt and tie over slacks.
The courtroom was laid out much like any other; there was the gallery occupying half the space, then the tables for the defense and the prosecution, and the jury box to the left. Some time after the original design of the courtroom half of the space between the counsel and the judge’s bench had been usurped by a large clerical area. The loss of this space to the demands of rigor and documentation led to some awkward logistics during testimony.
There was a small stuffed pig overlooking the clerical zone. It was a human touch I found encouraging.
We rose, except the defense, who made a habit of standing long before the call to rise came. Enter the judge, Nahal Iravani-Sani. “You may be seated, thank you for the courtesy,” she said. Her voice was gentle and friendly. Her wavy dark hair and olive complexion confirmed what I had assumed she would look like, based only on her name. She wore long black robes, of course.
From the first words she spoke, I could tell she appreciated the potential jurors packed into her courtroom. She recognized that the most annoying part of the process is the waiting. But before we could go any farther, we would all have to leave the room while she heard members of 45A ask to be released for reasons of hardship. “Hardship to your employer is not adequate,” she admonished.
We all left. The jury waiting room was fairly empty now; I found a seat and read some terrible space opera on my phone. That first day I didn’t want to bring anything extra — I had the nightmare scenario of having a backpack of stuff an no place to put it. Which was silly, in retrospect, but I’d rather not assume. So on my phone I was scrolling through a story that put sailing ships in space, while I and the rest of 45A that were not asking for hardship excuses cooled our heels.
Finally we were called back and there were several empty chairs in the gallery. Now it was time to get down to business. Eighteen names were called. I was not one of them. Those called filled the seats in the jury box, then a row of six chairs in front. From here on, jurors in those seats were not referred to by name, but rather by the number of the seat they occupied. Judge Iravani-Sani apologized for the impersonal nature of that policy, but told us that it was to protect the anonymity of the jurors.
Judge Iravani-Sani addressed all of us. “This case involves domestic violence,” she informed us. “While we all have strong feelings about that — of course we do — what we’re asking of you is to judge this case impartially, and to presume the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.” *
Each juror found a list of eleven questions to answer waiting on their chair. “Juror number one,” the judge said, “Please read each question out loud for the record, then your answer. The rest of the jurors need only give their answers.”
The first few questions were ordinary. “Do you have friends or family in law enforcement?” would lead to extra follow-up by the judge if the juror answered “yes”, to establish whether that relationship would lead to the juror giving automatic preference to the testimony of cops. Through this process the judge was carefully and skillfully preventing people from disqualifying themselves. “Knowing you feel that way, do you think you can still listen to the facts of the case?”
But then there was the question that asked, (something like) “have you ever been witness to, or a victim of domestic abuse?”
“No,” said Juror one. There were follow-up questions about a couple of his answers, but then it was on to the next juror. “Yes,” said Juror two when he reached the Big Question. He had seen domestic abuse. Discussion with the judge followed. It was Dad, maybe, the stories have all blurred. Can he remain impartial in this case? He said he thought he could.
On we went “No,” said juror three to the Big Question. “No,” said juror four. “Yes,” said juror five. The judge followed up as before. “Yes,” said Juror six.
I looked over to the person sitting closest to me in the gallery. He looked back at me, also wide-eyed. Six random people, three of them have directly experienced domestic abuse. By the time we got through all eighteen jury candidates, there were probably ten who had direct experience with domestic abuse.
Think about that. Remember that this courthouse is in one of the most prosperous cities in the world.
After the judge took them through the questionnaire, it was time for the lawyers to interview the initial eighteen. Whereas before it had simply been disturbing, now it got both fascinating and even more disturbing.
The prosecutor wanted to make sure that jurors didn’t hold it against the people that a domestic issue was being decided in the courts. Ms Hawkins asked each juror whether domestic violence should be reported to the police, or whether it should be handled by the family.
Holy crap. I don’t have hard numbers, but almost every person who had witnessed domestic abuse, when asked, “did you call the police?” said “No.”
The answers to that were universally tentative.
Why not? There was a camp that said that domestic abuse should be handled inside the family, and that there was no cause to involve outside authority. Then there were others who said that domestic abuse was obviously a crime but even they didn’t call the cops. People who know their friends are getting beat up don’t call the cops.
It’s understandable at one level; your friend’s life is shitty enough already, and if they want the cops they’ll call for them, right? Who are you to escalate someone else’s issues?
She was sitting somewhere around seat 16 when she was first interviewed. In her fifties, or perhaps a hard forties, or even a brutal thirties. She has not had a soft life. “Oh, I have a lot to say about this,” she said. And she did. Family members on the giving and receiving end of domestic abuse, including a sister who has a tongue as sharp as shark’s teeth, and uses it to hurt. Plenty of interaction with law enforcement in her family, but none of that (as far as I could tell) was related to the domestic abuse.
The woman in seat seven, an older woman, thought that the family should handle things unless it got really serious. How serious? her questioners persisted. “Cuts and bruises, that’s OK,” she said. “Maybe broken bones? Definitely if she dies.”
Another guy, both he and his mother were beaten by his father. “But it’s OK now, they’re divorced.”
It was somewhere around then that the lawyers and the judge met to eliminate some of the first eighteen. Several were dismissed with cause; the jurors in the lower seats were shifted to fill the holes.
Soon after that, the day was over and I found a crowded bus home. I found myself with a lot to say about the events of the day, and a fierce desire to talk about what I had heard and learned with my sweetie. Alas, my lips were sealed.
The next day, I had my chance to speak.
Tune in next time for Voir Dire: Jerry Speaks his Mind!
* Not all quotes here are exact.